Turkey Town examines the important role of Berkshire County in the modern-day Gobbler population in Massachusetts > Massachusetts

Turkey Town is a new documentary that will be streamed nationwide on PBS starting tomorrow. The film explores how conservationists rebuilt Massachusetts’ turkey population that had disappeared by the mid-20th century and why Berkshire County played a major role in poultry’s return to the Bay State. It also explores the relationship between humanity and the American symbol. Director Aynsley Floyd spoke to WAMC.

FLOYD: Turkey Town is a 30 minute documentary that talks about the history of wild turkey reintroduction efforts in Massachusetts, which is an interesting story. It also looks at how turkeys have adapted to life in suburban and even urban areas, and also how humans have adapted to the presence of wild turkeys in their urban areas.

WAMC: What led to this massive decline in the state’s turkey population that accelerated these conservation efforts?

They were completely eradicated from the state in the mid-19th century. And that was because of deforestation. So habitat loss and also hunting. They were hunted to the point of extinction, so to speak.

What was the reaction to that?

Well, for about 100 years we didn’t have any turkeys in Massachusetts at all. And it wasn’t until the early 1970s and late 1960s that wildlife biologists in the state decided they had the ability and desire to fix this mistake.

And that’s where Western Massachusetts comes in. Talk to us about what conservationists have done to help rebuild this population in the Commonwealth.

MassWildlife’s predecessor decided to relocate wild turkeys living happily ever after in upstate New York. So they caught a small number of birds — 37 birds, to be exact, in upstate New York — and drove them across the border in a truck and released them in the Beartown State Forest. And those 37 birds multiplied like crazy, the population just went down. After a number of years, when the population was established, they began collecting birds from the Beartown population and moving them to other areas of the state. And here we are today with our turkey situation or problem, however you want to look at it.

Well, your film talks about the intersection of human culture and turkey culture. Let us talk about it. What have you learned from talking to people about the roles turkeys play both in the wild and in closer environments such as urban and suburban parts of the state?

Yes, one of the most interesting things about making this film was to really look closely at what this iconic bird means to people. There was a wide range of answers. In the film, I look at a woman who was created, an artist who created an enormous work specifically about wild turkeys. And the art is beautiful and humorous. And it’s an interesting response to this particular artist having these birds around her. Another person I watch in the film has adopted a disabled turkey as a pet and sort of allows it to come and go in their home. Another character I looked at is a turkey hunter, but a philosophical turkey hunter, someone who thinks very carefully about what it means to hunt a wild animal and what it means to eat meat and act responsibly.

Talk to us a little about the process of bringing the turkeys to western Massachusetts. I know some interesting technologies were used in this process. What sort of details can you base yourselves on from this fascinating resettlement experiment that led to Great Barrington becoming the site of the great Massachusetts repatriation?

Secure. So, the turkeys were caught by this kind of interesting contraption called a cannon net, which is basically a net that’s pressed into some kind of metal box, like an accordion, and explosives are attached to that box, so when that Net is triggered, there is an explosion causing the net to spread several feet in front of itself. And so they laid out the cannon net on the bottom of a field and put fodder in front of the net to attract the turkeys. And when the turkeys gathered, they deployed that net, so to speak. There is some footage of this in the film and you will see that the turkeys don’t seem particularly bothered by the fact that they are covered by a net. And they were collected that way and laid carefully in the back of a truck and taken to the Berkshires.

Now it occurs to me that there is a degree of godplaying going on here in choosing which type of turkey should become the new default turkey for the state. Was there any reasoning with this concept that there was some species of this specific genetic line or species of turkey that would essentially become the new turkey for the region?

This is an interesting question. In North America, there are only minor differences in turkey species. So the turkeys they collected in upstate New York were genetically very similar to the turkeys that existed in Massachusetts before the mid-1800s. So it’s not like they had a whole range of choices as to what kind of turkey to bring. They were genetically very similar to what was here before.

Now, since they had been hunted so aggressively up to that point, was there any similar legislation or regulation of the turkey world that went along with this effort? Has there been any sort of legal remedy to try to protect this community, which the state has made every effort to purposefully repopulate?

Yes, that’s a good question. So yes, turkeys, wild turkeys are protected by law in the state of Massachusetts. It is illegal to collect their eggs or to touch or tamper with them in any way. However, there is a sanctioned hunting season for wild turkeys. But it’s heavily regulated. It’s only twice a year, once in spring and once in fall. And there are very strict rules about how many turkeys a hunter can take on any given hunt. Also, it’s illegal to fire a firearm within 500 yards of a Massachusetts home, which bars virtually any type of metropolitan area. So, you know, turkey hunting and trapping in any type of urban or suburban area is strictly prohibited. But yes, they are protected, they are protected by law.

Were you able to interact with real turkeys while working on this? And if so, did you feel like you learned something about the literally unique character of the turkey itself?

Yes, good question. I’ve had some exposure to some wild turkeys over the course of this project and I would say one thing that has surprised me to meet a real wild turkey is that they are quite a bit smarter than you might expect. You know, I think it’s easy to be fooled by her looks when it comes to judging her intelligence. Apparently, they’re a little clumsy and unwieldy, have tiny heads, and behave in ways that might suggest they’re not very intelligent. On the other hand, if you really examine this, the fact that turkeys have not only been able to adapt to our environment and urban environment, but also thrive in our environment says a lot about how intelligent they actually are.

Did that humanize the turkey in any way and complicate your experience with the concept of eating a turkey?

Definitive. I mean, I was a vegetarian before I started the film. But yes, I have a great sympathy for animals and even more for the wild turkey since doing this project.

Are there any questions about the turkey and your film and the experience of working on it that you want to make sure they come out that I haven’t thought of?

I think the story of the wild turkey’s repopulation is very interesting in that wildlife biologists decided to bring the turkey back to Massachusetts for no other reason than to correct an environmental mistake that humans had made in the past. There’s no reason we really should have turkeys in Massachusetts. We have lived here without turkeys for almost 100 years and have been fine. Really, the only reason to bring her back was because it was the right thing to do. And for me, in the face of climate change, a story where people chose to correct an environmental mistake simply because they chose to and had the will to do so is very hopeful